When thinking of India, ultimately forts and palaces come to mind. After all, they're a significant part of the country's extensive history, and they've been featured in countless photos and documentaries.
Hence, it's not surprising that these architectural marvels are high on the "must-see" lists of tourists when traveling through India. The majority of India's forts and palaces are located in Rajasthan, where they were built by clans of warrior Rajput rulers (before being invaded by the Mughals). The Pink City of Jaipur has a particularly large number of them. However, you'll find them scattered through other states as well, as remnants of the Mughal era.
Many of India's palaces have now been converted into hotels by their once royal owners. This been necessary in order for them to generate an income, after their royal status and privileges were abolished by the Constitution of India in 1971. You'll find more about them in this essential guide to palace hotels in India.
Otherwise, read on to discover 14 of the most impressive forts and palaces in India that are open to the general public.
Amber Fort is perhaps the most well-known fort in India. It gets its name from the small heritage town of Amber (also known as Amer) where it's situated, about 20 minutes northeast of Jaipur. Rajput ruler Maharaja Man Singh I began constructing the fort in 1592. Successive rulers added to it and occupied it until Jaipur was built and the capital relocated there in 1727. Now, it's one of Jaipur's top tourist attractions.
The fort is part of a group of six hill forts in Rajasthan that were declared a UNESCO World Heritage site in 2013 (the others are Jaisalmer Fort, Kumbhalgarh, Chittorgarh, Ranthambore Fort, Gagron Fort, and Amber Fort). Its architecture is a magnificent blend of Hindu and Mughal influences. Made out of sandstone and white marble, the fort complex consists of a series of courtyards, palaces, halls, and gardens. The Sheesh Mahal (Mirror Palace) is widely regarded as the most beautiful part of it, with intricately carved, glittering walls and ceilings. You can learn about the Fort's history in the evening sound and light show.
Mehrangarh Fort is not only one of Jodhpur's top attractions but is also one of the most impressive, well-maintained forts in India. It looms over the "Blue City" from its lofty position atop a rocky hill where it was built by the ruling dynasty of Rathore Rajputs. King Rao Jodha started constructing the fort in 1459, when he established his new capital in Jodhpur. However, the work continued to be carried out by subsequent rulers right up until the 20th century. As a result, the fort has remarkably diverse architecture.
Unlike other Rajput forts that ended up abandoned, Mehrangarh Fort still remains in the hands of the royal family. They've restored it and turned it into an outstanding tourist destination comprising a series of palaces, museums, and restaurants. What also sets the fort apart from others in Rajasthan is its focus on folk art and music. There are cultural performances every day at various locations in the fort. In addition, the fort provides the backdrop for acclaimed music festivals such as the annual World Sacred Spirit Festival in February and Rajasthan International Folk Festival in October.
Jaisalmer Fort, Rajasthan
There aren't too many places in the world where you can visit a "living" fort but Jaisalmer, in the Thar desert, is one of them. The city's mirage-like yellow sandstone fort is home to thousands of people who have been residing in it for generations. The fort also has a multitude of shops, hotels, restaurants, a palace complex, old haveli mansions, and temples inside it.
Bhati Rajput ruler Rawal Jaisal began building Jaisalmer fort in 1156, making it one of the oldest forts in Rajasthan. It eventually expanded to cover the whole hill and transformed itself into a city, which swelled in population during times of conflict. The fort survived many battles. However, its condition is now rapidly deteriorating due to illegal construction and poor drainage. Wastewater has been seeping into the fort's foundations, making it unstable and causing parts to collapse.
Romantic Udaipur is known as the city of palaces and lakes. It was founded in 1559 by Mewar ruler Maharana Udai Singh II, and the kingdom's capital was later relocated there from Chittorgarh after Mughal invasion. At the heart of it, bordering Lake Pichola, is the City Palace Complex. Notably, it's still partially occupied by the Mewar royal family today. They've done a commendable job of developing it into a tourist destination that intimately presents the history of the Maharanas of Mewar. The "jewel in the crown" (pardon the pun) is the City Palace Museum.
The museum comprises both the Mardana Mahal (King's Palace) and Zenana Mahal (Queen's Palace), which make up the City Palace. Constructed over four and a half centuries, it's the oldest and largest part of the City Palace Complex. The architecture is the main highlight, along with the priceless private royal galleries, artwork, and photographs.
Massive Chittorgarh Fort is regarded as the greatest fort in Rajasthan and is also one of the largest forts in India. It sprawls across some 700 acres! Mewar kings ruled from the fort for eight centuries, until Mughal Emperor Akbar besieged and captured it in 1568. Akbar's eldest son, Jehangir, ended up giving the fort back to the Mewars in 1616. However, they never resettled there.
Due to its size, the fort is most comfortably explored by vehicle and it's a good idea to allow at least three hours to do so. Some parts of it are in ruin but its former glory is still very much present. Attractions include old palaces, temples, towers, and a reservoir where it's possible to feed fish. Climb to the top of Vijay Stambha (Tower of Victory) for a dramatic view.
Perhaps the most shocking part of the fort is the area used as a royal cremation ground. It's also where tens of thousands of Rajput women immolated themselves, choosing death before dishonor, on the three occasions that the fort was taken by rival armies in the 15th and 16th centuries.
Chittorgarh is located in the southern part of Rajasthan, around half way between Delhi and Mumbai, and just over two hours drive from Udaipur. It can easily be visited on a day trip or side trip from Udaipur.
Often referred to as "The Great Wall of India", Kumbhalgarh's imposing fort wall extends for more than 35 kilometers and is the second longest continuous wall in the world (the Great Wall of China is the first).
Kumbhalgarh was the most important fort of the Mewar kingdom after Chittorgarh. The rulers used to retreat to Kumbhalgarh during times of danger as it was impenetrable. The fort was built by Mewar ruler Rana Kumbha during the 15th century. Apparently, it took him 15 years and numerous attempts to complete it! There are about 360 ancient temples, as well as palace ruins, step wells, and cannon bunkers inside it.
Kumbhalgarh is also famous for the fact that legendary king and warrior Maharana Pratap (great great grandson of Rana Kumbha) was born there, in 1540, in the mansion known as Jhalia ka Malia (Palace of Queen Jhali). He succeeded his father Udai Singh II (the founder of Udaipur) as the ruler of Mewar. Unlike many surrounding rulers, he refused to concede to the Mughals despite Emperor Akbar's negotiations. This resulted in the famous battle of Haldi Ghati in 1576, which played an important role in India's history.
The fort is located just over two hours drive north of Udaipur, in Rajasthan's Rajsamand district. It's popularly visited on a day trip or side trip from Udaipur. It's possible to hire a car there from one of the numerous travel agencies. Many people combine visiting Kumbhalgarh with Haldi Ghati or the Jain temples at Ranakpur.
Jaipur City Palace, Rajasthan
Situated at the center of the Old City of Jaipur, the City Palace Complex was built mainly between 1729 and 1732 by Maharaja Sawai Jai Singh II. He had been successfully ruling from nearby Amber Fort but increasing population and water shortage made him decide to relocate his capital to Jaipur in 1727.
The royal family still lives in the Chandra Mahal part of the palace (their family flag flies atop it when the Maharaja is in residence), while the remainder has been converted into the Maharaja Sawai Man Singh II museum. For a hefty fee (2,500 rupees for foreigners and 2,000 rupees for Indians), you can take the Royal Grandeur tour through the inner quarters of the Chandra Mahal. Otherwise, you'll have to be content with exploring the rest of the palace.
The most eye-catching part of it is Pitam Niwas Chowk, the interior courtyard that leads to the Chandra Mahal. It has four beautifully painted doors, or gates, representing the four seasons and dedicated to Hindu gods Vishnu, Shiva, Ganesh, and Goddess Devi (the mother goddess). The peacock motifs on the doorway of Peacock Gate are particularly stunning and widely photographed.
Agra Fort is unfortunately overshadowed by the Taj Mahal but should in fact be visited before it, as it's a poignant prequel to the monument. The fort was the first grand Mughal fort in India, from where four generations of influential Mughal emperors ruled during the height of the Mughal empire. In addition, it was one of the first sites in India to get UNESCO World Heritage listing, in 1983.
The fort, in its current form, was constructed by Emperor Akbar in the 16th century when he decided to strategically set up a new capital in Agra. He made it primarily as a military installation. The opulent white marble palaces and mosques were later added by Emperor Shah Jahan, Akbar's grandson, during the 17th century. (He loved white marble so much, he also built the Taj Mahal out of it).
Shah Jahan modeled the Red Fort in Delhi on Agra Fort, when he stated developing his new capital there in 1638. However, he died in Agra Fort after being imprisoned in it by his power-hungry son Aurangzeb, who took over the throne.
The British took control of the fort in 1803 and it was a place of battle during the Indian Rebellion of 1857, which threatened the rule of the British East India Company. When the British left India in 1947, they handed the fort over to the Indian government. The Indian Army now uses most of it.
One of Delhi's top attractions and most famous monument, the Red Fort stands as a powerful reminder of the Mughals who ruled India but it's also an icon of independent India. It was completed in 1648. Emperor Shah Jahan made it to resemble the Red Fort in Agra but on a much grander scale in accordance with his ambition and lavish tastes. In recognition of its significance, the Red Fort was named as a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 2007.
Unfortunately, the fort's prosperity didn't last long. It declined along with the might of the Mughals and fortunes of the royal family. The Persians plundered it in 1739, looting many priceless valuables. It was also taken over by the Sikhs, Marathas and British. The British destroyed much of the fort's palatial buildings following the failed Indian Rebellion of 1857 and then set up an army base inside it. Almost a century later, when India gained independence from the British, the Red Fort was selected as the primary site of public celebration.
The fort's Old Delhi location, opposite Chandni Chowk, is fascinating and close to Jama Masjid—another marvelous treasure of the Old City and one of the biggest mosques in India. The area around the Red Fort really comes alive during the Navaratri festival and Dussehra, with fairs and Ram Lila performances.
Gwalior Fort, Madhya Pradesh
Ancient and imposing Gwalior Fort, one of the must see tourist places in Madhya Pradesh, has a very long and turbulent history.
The fort's history can be traced as far back as 525. Over the years, it was subjected to many attacks and had many different rulers. It wasn't until the reign of the Rajput Tomar dynasty that the fort really rose to prominence, and was built to its current scale and grandeur. During this time, ruler Raja Man Singh Tomar crafted one of the fort's main highlights, Man Mandir Palace, between 1486 and 1516. Its outer walls are distinctively decorated with blue mosaic tiles and rows of yellow ducks.
Later on, the Mughals used the fort as a prison during their rule.
The fort's size is large enough to warrant having your own transport, as there's a lot to see inside it. The compound contains a number of historic monuments, Hindu and Jain temples, and palaces (one of which, the Gujari Mahal, has been converted into an Archeological Museum).
The fort's most dramatic entrance, known as Hathi Pol (Elephant Gate), is on the eastern side and leads into Man Mandir palace. However, it's only accessible on foot and requires a steep climb through a series of other gates. The western gate, Urvai Gate, is conveniently reachable by vehicle, although it's nowhere near as impressive. There are some intricate Jain sculptures cut into the rock on the way up though, which shouldn't be missed.
A sound and light show is held nightly in the fort's open air amphitheater.
Golconda Fort, Hyderabad
Located on the outskirts of Hyderabad, the ruins of Golconda Fort are a popular day trip from the city. The fort originated as a mud fort in the 13th century, when it was founded by the Kakatiya Kings of Waranga. However, its heyday was during the reign of the Qutub Shahi dynasty, from 1518 to 1687.
Later, during the 17th century, Golconda Fort rose to prominence for its diamond market. Some of the world's most priceless diamonds were found in the area.
The fort's ruins consist of numerous gateways, drawbridges, temples, mosques, royal apartments and halls, and stables. Some of its bastions are still mounted with canons. What's particularly interesting about the fort though, is its architecture and special acoustic design. If you stand at a certain point under the dome at Fateh Darwaza (Victory Gate) and clap, it can be clearly heard more than a kilometer away at Bala Hissar Gate, the fort's main entrance. Apparently, this was used to warn the royal occupants of attack.
An evening sound and lights show narrates the story of the fort.
Mysore Palace, Karnataka
As far as Indian palaces are concerned, the Maharaja's Palace (commonly referred to as Mysore Palace) is relatively new. It was designed by British architect Henry Irwin and constructed between 1897 and 1912. The palace belongs to Wodeyar kings, who first built a palace in Mysore in the 14th century. However, it was demolished and reconstructed numerous times. The previous palace, made out of wood in Hindu style, was destroyed by fire. The architecture of the current palace is Indo-Saracenic style—a combination of Hindu, Islamic, Rajput, and Gothic influences.
The palace's predominant feature is its marble domes. Some would say its glitzy interiors are over the top. As well as private and public audience halls, there's a marriage hall, pavilion of antique dolls, armory, royal painting gallery, and collection of sculptures and artifacts. Unfortunately, photography isn't permitted inside though.
What's really dazzling about the palace is that it's India's only illuminated royal structure. The exterior gets lit up by 100,000 or so bulbs for about 45 minutes every Sunday evening from 7 p.m., as well as briefly after the nightly sound and light show. It also remains illuminated nightly during the whole 10 days of the Mysore Dasara Festival.
Chitradurga Fort, Karnataka
Chitradurga Fort is worth stopping to see on the way to Hampi from Bangalore or Mysore. You could easily spend half a day, or even a whole day, exploring its vast area and learning about the many legends associated with it. Make sure you wear appropriate footwear though because there's a lot of climbing and walking involved!
The fort occupies 1,500 acres on a cluster of rocky hills. It was constructed in stages by rulers of various dynasties (including the Rashtrakutas, Chalukyas, Hoysalas, Vijayanagars, and Nayakas) from the 10th to the 18th centuries. However, most of the fortification work was done by the Nayakas between the 16th and 18th centuries, when they took over Chitradurga after the fall of the Vijayanagar empire. The fort is known as a stone fort, as its ramparts are made from huge blocks of granite, which blend into the landscape's plentiful boulders. In addition to its numerous concentric walls, gateways, and entrances, the fort apparently has 35 secret pathways and four invisible passages. Plus, 2,000 watchtowers!
Nevertheless, after repeated attacks on Chitradurga, Hyder Ali (who took the throne from the Wodeyars of Mysore) managed to get control of the fort in 1779. He and his son, Tipu Sultan, put the finishing touches on it, including a mosque. The British killed Tipu Sultan in the Fourth Mysore War in 1799 and garrisoned their troops in the fort. Later, they handed it over to the Mysore government.
Attractions inside the fort include many ancient temples, artillery units, stone carvings and sculptures, grinding stones (powered by buffaloes and used to crush gunpowder), cauldrons for storing oil, water tanks, a majestic teak door, and a peak with panoramic views. Hidimbeshwara temple, dedicated to the powerful demon Hidimba, used to be a Buddhist monastery and is fort's most interesting temple. It contains a tooth of the demon and a drum that belonged to her husband Bhima, one of the Pandavas brothers from the Hindu epic "The Mahabharata."
Junagarh Fort, Bikaner, Rajasthan
Although Junagarh Fort is one of Rajasthan's lesser-known forts, it's no less impressive. What's particularly notable about it is that it's one of the few forts in India that isn't situated on a hilltop. The fort is right in the midst of Bikaner and the city grew around it.
Raja Rai Singh, the sixth ruler of Bikaner, built the fort during his reign from 1571 to 1612. He was a well-traveled expert in arts and architecture, and this knowledge is reflected in the fort's superb structures. Subsequent rulers added elaborate palaces, ladies quarters, audience halls, temples, and pavilions.
The fort's original name was Chintamani. The renaming of it to Junagarh (Old Fort) took place in the early 20th century when the royal family relocated to Lalgarh Palace outside the fort limits. However, they continue to maintain it and have opened part of it to the public. Guided tours are conducted, and there are also two museums with many compelling royal artifacts and memorabilia.